From education to employment

Standing up for older workers in the North

Stephen Lambert

Stephen Lambert examines the plight of  Northern older workers locked out of the labour market and outlines what needs to be done to overcome barriers to work, training and adult/community education amongst this ‘disregarded and forgotten’ group.

Although the level of  North-east regional unemployment has increased, one group that appears to be over-looked by central government is the over-50s – a growing demographic both in North and else where in the UK.

It is true that most people in this cohort are in paid work, with a significant minority of middle-class professionals, having opted for flexible working or a four-day week.

Why so people nationally aged 50-64 remain economically inactive

The stark reality is that one million people nationally aged 50 to 64 remain ”economically inactive”. The key question is why. In the last two years since the end of the Covid lockdown, there has been a regional concern about the rise in economic inactivity amongst adults over 50 who have not returned to the workforce.

In the UK 565,000 older people have vanished from the labour force. According to latest figures inactivity in this group has risen sharply in Newcastle since 2020 following a fall since 2012, in a pattern similar to other core cities like Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.

This rise seems to be driven by two key factors. One, an increase in the number of people reporting long-long-term sickness and disability. And two, a rise in the number of people looking after home or caring for family members.

Yet, according to Age UK over half a million would work if an employer offered them a job. Many are women in their late 50s who can no longer access their state pension at 60. Worklessness in this ‘forgotten group’ has been brought on by a number of factors such as redundancy, ill-health, burn-out or ”enforced early retirement”. It’s hard for the Northern worker to find another job. For others aged over 55, the problem is under-employment which in some ways, is a problematic as unemployment.

Victims of globalisation and automation

Most jobless over-50s are former blue-collar workers living in ‘Red-Wall’ de-industrialised towns like Ashington, Blyth and Stanley. Thousands are the victims of globalisation and automation which has helped to cause long-term unemployment leaving many consigned to the economic scrapheap . For some working-class men over 50, the only real developments have been football, walking the dog, afternoon drinking and day-time TV. 

Some are disconnected from economic opportunities partly due to poor regional public transport networks. A significant minority do live near major employment, development sites and retail parks, but are sadly to often overlooked by employers.

Large numbers of older men and women live in neighbourhoods, such as outer-council estates, which have high rates of poverty, unemployment, low skill sets and ill-health . Many 55-year- olds left school at 16. They’re less likely to to be equipped to compete in digital, fast paced labour market which favours IT-savvy young adults. In the former coalfield communities of the North the educationalist Robin Simmons argues in his new book, ‘The Ghost of Coal’, some older people are locked into a cycle of deprivation that acts as a barrier and prevents certain neighbourhoods from fulfilling their potential.


According to the Centre For Ageing Better age-based discrimination is rife. Research reveals that women over 50 are 25 times less likely to be offered a job interview than their peers in their mid-twenties. Younger men were three times more likely to get an interview than their older peers over 50 while among the women the gap was five times.

Yet adult verbal, communication skills and intiative remains unchanged as a person ages. Findings produced by the lobby group, Business In the Community, reveal that older workers are half as likely to take a sick day compared to younger employees. And eight out of 10 employers with older workers said that their staff are able to adapt to change.

The national government policy approach to the 50+

Although in post-Brexit Britain the national government policy approach to the 50+ age group is slowly evolving, a more pro-active stance is being taken by local authorities and the North of Tyne Combined Authority. The Shared Prosperity Fund, the ”key locally determined ” funding stream for employment support, identifies those who are ‘economically inactive’ as a priority group. The North of Tyne Combined Authority has defined the over-50s as particular priority for job and training support with investment going into local VCSE bodies to engage with and support inactive people aged over 50 back into paid work.

In Newcastle, the council has set up an Older Workers Group with local partners including the Elders Council , the Centre for Ageing and public health professionals to explore how to help the 50-64-aged group to stay in and access jobs.

Producing a New Deal for Over-50s

A future North- East Combined Authority must produce a New Deal for Over-50s , based on the New Labour model which achieved some success in 2008 and fully fund adult education to open up opportunities for people over 50. These are the things that could help the older worker to get back onto the jobs ladder. The UK’s prevention and occupational service at present is poor compared to Sweden (which has a higher employment rate amongst those aged 55-64) and needs meaningful investment.

Older workers need stronger legal protection from the impact of ageism. If we’re serious about creating an age-diverse workplace business, political and civil society leaders need to re-emphasise the value of older workers both in the North and beyond.

By Stephen Lambert

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and is Vice Chair of the Economy, Job and Skills Scrutiny Committee. He writes in a personal capacity.

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